From its punny title to its choice of casting Greg Kinnear to play Bob Hope, complete with all-too-fake ski-slope schnoz, Misbehaviour should rightly be one of those feel-good British ensemble dramedies of yore, like The Full Monty, Calendar Girls or Kinky Boots. But while there are bits and pieces of humor sprinkled about, this fact-based story about a group of determined young female Londoners who staged a women’s lib protest during the live TV broadcast of the 1970 Miss World beauty competition is somewhat earnest and low-key to a fault.
The good news is that its cast is packed (maybe too packed) with talented ladies who are capable of selling their characters, even if the script is too afraid to fully flesh most of them out as they conspire to interrupt what they deem to be a sexist ritual. On one side is Keira Knightley as academic and single mum Sally Alexander, who is disgusted by her male cohorts. On the other side is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who manages to ooze a sense of purpose and pride as Miss Granada aka Jennifer Hosten, an air hostess who harbors hopes that the pageant will lead to greater opportunities and validation if she becomes the first Black woman to win the title. There is another contestant, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), who is the first South African Black competitor but she barely makes an impression. Meanwhile, Jessie Buckley –whose star continues to rise –is fearless rabble rouser Jo Robinson, who recruits Sally to the cause and her fellow sisters in arms.
The lone male actor on screen who makes a lasting impression is Rhys Ifans as Eric Morley, the man who runs the pageant with his wife. The scene when he dramatically flounces about with a crown on his head and a glittery cape while demonstrating to the ladies how to negotiate the stage is a keeper.
Other side characters include Sally’s traditional mother (Phyllis Logan, housekeeper Mrs. Hughs from Downton Abbey) who prefers that her toddler granddaughter is a girly-girl and not a warrior in the fight for equality. Then there is the estimable Lesley Manville under-employed as Hope’s much-abused wife Dolores, who tolerates her cheating spouse’s sexist ways with a parade of adult beverages, as she accompanies the comic to England as he hosts the pageant.
Anyone who was alive in 1970 will appreciate the flashbacks to the mind-blowing and gaudy fashions of the era, especially Knightley’s very cool, long suede-patched gown in varied shades of brown that she wears in the final scenes. But the focus isn’t on nostalgia but feminist fury. There are two especially galling scenes that are staged for maximum effect. The first is when the contestants walk on stage in swimsuits while their measurements are duly noted, smiling all the while. But then the male announcer on stage says, “There are two sides to everything.” That’s the cue for the women show off their backsides to the crowd for what seems like an eternity. If it sounds demeaning, it is.
But the final straw comes when Hope cracks a chauvinistic joke right before the seven finalists march onstage: “I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of brute. I consider the feelings of women, of course. I consider feeling women all of the time.” And, boom, Sally and Jo start chucking plastic bags of flour onto the stage from the balcony while other protesters employ noise makers while chaos takes hold and water guns are employed.
As directed by Phillipa Lowthorpe, who has overseen episodes of such female-centric TV fare as The Crown and Call the Midwife, Misbehaviour is less a miss than an almost-there, a much-needed reminder at a time when the rights of minorities and women are endangered here in the old U.S of A. Perhaps the most honest moment arrives at the end when this warning pops up on screen before the credits roll: “Attempts to bring down the patriarchy remain ongoing.”